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The Koan of Basic Goodness

COLUMN: Dispatches from the Front Lines
by Shastri Jennifer Woodhull
Photos courtesy of Maxine Sidran
 and Joey Johannsen 

Flower, photo courtesy of Maxine Sidran

Dispatches from the Front Lines is a bimonthly column initiated by Shastri Jennifer Woodhull of
Cape Town, South Africa. It’s intended to open up dialog concerning the conflicts dogging Shambhala groups and centers all over the world. So far, Jennifer has been the only contributor. What will make this column genuinely helpful to the larger mandala—and, by implication, to all of our local sanghas—is a broader range of contributions. You don’t have to be in an official leadership position in your center or group; you need only to have practiced bringing your local conflict to the path of warriorship, and to be willing to say something about that experience. Please see the submission guidelines, and go for it!


At the moment you begin to complain and produce logic, you cease to be a warrior of the Tiger Lion Garuda Dragon dignity on the spot.

—The Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

One of my favorite Buddhist stories recounts a sort of jamboree of the enlightened: a gathering of all the buddhas of the various dimensions and eras. Over flagons of inconceivably delectable amrita, the participants trade stories of their respective teaching experiences. “In my dimension,” says one buddha, “I convey the dharma through aromas.” Her listeners nod appreciatively. “Oh, that’s interesting,” remarks another. “The beings in my dimension respond best to melody.” Our own buddha shakes his head sadly. “The beings in my world are so thick,” he laments, “suffering is the only thing that gets through to them.”

Over the course of the past few difficult years, I’ve at times been offered well-meaning suggestions that the painful ruptures in our sangha are somehow “all for the best.” The implication is that since I’m suffering, the Buddha must be getting through to me. But that’s not necessarily the case. Ultimately, this reasoning boils down to the frankly masochistic view of suffering as redemptive—a view dangerously allied with a reward-and-punishment model of personal and social evolution. On the warrior’s path, suffering can certainly generate progress; but when that happens, it’s because of the way we relate to our suffering, not merely because we’re gritting our teeth and enduring it with whatever passes for grace.

I’m not a fan of the “everything happens for a reason” school of thought. For one thing, it strikes me as unhelpfully theistic: whose reasoning is privileged here? I suspect that the Grand Reasoner is none other than our old friends, Hope and Fear. Even though my worst fears are manifesting right now, the logic goes, I’ll ultimately succeed in getting what I hope for. But from the warrior’s point of view, success doesn’t lie in getting what I want. Success means that I wake up.

There’s a maddeningly smug undertone to the reason-for-everything approach, one that flies in the face of compassion. If there’s a “reason” for your suffering, then it follows that your suffering—your divorce or ill-treatment or terminal diagnosis—is reasonable. This, in turn, makes your fear, rage and anguish unreasonable. And that means that I don’t have to deal with it.

Splash by Joey JohannsenThe suffering that wakes us up is, by definition, unreasonable. It demands our active engagement, like it or not, ready or not. We’re obliged to enter into relationship with our worst fears, and by the same token, to let go of our fondest hopes. This visceral practice is rooted in the nondualistic riddle of basic goodness. If it’s true that everything is infused with basic goodness, that must include this horrible, awful, dreadful, wretched *&#x! experience. How am I supposed to understand that?

Those of us who have gone through Shambhala Training Level I may recognize in this the infamous Hitler Question: if basic goodness is the nature of all reality, how do we explain such horrors as the Holocaust, or the Stalin or Ceaușescu regimes? What’s basically good about the Rwandan genocide, the beheadings of ISIS captives, or any of the other myriad brutalities delivered to us fresh with each new day’s media reports?

Relative to such unthinkable cruelties, the perceived insults and injustices we suffer in our sangha conflicts pale into insignificance. But although we’re speaking of vastly different degrees of suffering, it’s all suffering. And so the same question applies: where’s the basic goodness here?

To proclaim that painful events happen in order to wake us up flies dangerously close to the “everything happens for a reason” logic I’ve just been refuting. The difference between the two approaches lies in the assumptions we bring to our experiences. To ask why things happen is to approach the question already armed with the assumption that there’s an alternative to the experience we’re having: in a word, that this shouldn’t be happening.

This is the same assumption that fuels our everyday irritation, impatience and grasping. When I knock over the mug
and it shatters on the kitchen floor, my annoyance is rooted in precisely the same assumption as is my outrage at the Hitlers of this world: This shouldn’t be happening!

Grey rocks in Water by Joey JohannsenThe same dynamic is in play when we go looking for the tranquil meadow of our sangha, only to find ourselves instead
alone in a vacant lot, standing barefoot on broken glass. To say that this shouldn’t be happening is a no-brainer. Of course people should be treating each other with compassion and respect. Of course people shouldn’t be hurting each other. The worse the violence, as in the Hitler example—or the higher our expectations of the perceived perpetrators, as with our dharma siblings—the more justified we feel in rejecting such acts. Yet no matter how legitimate our indignation, or how convincing our arguments for why this shouldn’t be happening, the fact remains that this is happening.

Most unreasonable of all, the fact that this is happening is basically good—not thanks to some labored logic that magically aligns things with some imagined ideal, but because this has the capacity to happen. Because it involves sentient beings capable of feeling and thinking, and the conditions that permit us to choose how we’re going to conduct ourselves. It’s basically good because we have those choices and the agency to act on them.

Certainly, none of our teachers has ever suggested that we should passively allow harm to continue unchallenged. But from a purely practical point of view, our attempts to stop harm seem too often to escalate our conficts. Perhaps that’s because we’re confusing our dualistic version of goodness with the much more profound reality of basic goodness. From that deeper perspective, our notions of how things ought to be are at best irrelevant. What’s real is our brokenheartedness, our ability to experience it, and our yearning for a kinder and more loving world.

According to this view, the heartbreak of the situations in which we find ourselves is nothing other than the unreasonable calling card of basic goodness.


Shastri Jennifer Woodhull

Shastri Jennifer Woodhull

Jennifer Woodhull grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and returned there after 30 years in the U.S. She took refuge at Karme Dzong, Boulder in 1984 and was empowered as a shastri in 2012. Jennifer is a full-time PhD student in religious studies at the University of Cape Town.

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5 responses to “ The Koan of Basic Goodness ”
  1. Sad-Joy Lioness
    Mar 27, 2015

    When I’m suffering in this type of situation, I find the quote at the top by CTR and other statements about “no complaints” to be ever more invalidating than “everything happens for a reason.” True, having no fundamental complaint is the mind of basic goodness, but it’s also human to cry out (complain) when things hurt, and I’ve always struggled with those quotes, and find it more than provocative that you used this at the top of this article. If I consider myself a warrior of Shambhala, isn’t telling me I “cease to be a warrior” even worse than saying “crybaby” or “man-up?”

  2. Annie Franklin
    Mar 27, 2015

    Thanks for this very timely article. You make some excellent points that I will be thinking about in relation to my own, often optional, suffering.

  3. Jane Arthur
    Mar 27, 2015

    Dear Jennifer,

    Thank you for this clear and helpful reminder of something I always want to be reminded of!

    With much appreciation,

  4. Sherab Gyatso
    Mar 26, 2015

    Like you I do not subscribe to the theory of things happen because we need them to. Events are like striking a bell: a whole bell rings resonantly, a cracked bell rings poorly. In the same way, events cause us to react in different ways, which reveal our makeup. Paying attention to our own reactions can teach us about ourselves in unexpected ways.

    We understand the world and ourselves through stories which give meaning. Some of these stories explain to us why we go to work every day. Some of them give us a feeling of security: my pension, my children, my friends, the justice system, being a citizen of some country, whatever. Although they are things that we believe in, they may have little basis in reality. Although I think I like you, I may actually only like who I think you are, i.e. my idea, my story about you, and not you.

    Life without stories is hard. Why bother to get a job? Usually we only gather lungta for some goal, itself another story. But seeing the unreality of one’s own stories does reveal the now. There is a brilliance to reality, and to one’s own mental formations rising and falling. That is basic goodness: the very fabric of our experience.

  5. Thanks for sharing your analysis and experience of this special, difficult kind of pain–the rift in a sangha, a happy family, even a devoted political collective. I’m also not of the “everything happens for a reason” school, but when I look back at these situations years later, when even the waking trace of the pain has long since faded, I do wonder if it wasn’t all for the best, if my personal judgment was only a piece and I was blind to the entire puzzle, if the pain wasn’t really caused and fed by my continuing engagement with it, if my spiritual practice just wasn’t sufficiently advanced to produce another more enlightened response.

    I don’t know that there is an answer since the “sangha (or whatever) damage” arises time and again, place to place. May we become thinner and thinner so that tomorrow we awaken to the aromas and songs instead of the thick pounding, taunting remains of yesterday. Love you.

    Someone else comment??

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